There’s much more to Florida than its stereotype of retirees, ‘snow birds’, celebrities, and people in need of a winter tan. The state was settled by Spaniards looking for gold in the 16th century, but had already had a long Native American heritage stretching back millennia before this point. Today, well over 10 percent of Florida’s population is Hispanic, giving the state a great mix of cultural identity.
More than 100 Native American tribes, such as the Seminoles and Apalachee, lived around Florida when the first Spaniards arrived on its shores in 1513. Famous explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was first on the scene, chasing tales of legendary El Dorado gold and eternal youth. Several competing conquistadors set up forts and towns, some of which remain largely intact today, such as St Augustine.
The British were next to seek control over Florida’s lush lands in the 1700s. They kicked the Spanish out in 1763 and divided the territory into two parts. Florida sided with the British during the American Revolution, but the Spanish returned in 1781 and took back West and East Florida. US President Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida but this only sparked the First Seminole War in 1817, which would pit settler against Indian for the next 50 years.
In 1819, Spain ceded all land to America to settle their debt. During the Civil War, Florida was quick to secede to the Confederacy, but saw little fighting. After being readmitted to the Union, Florida switched its focus to tourism. Entrepreneurs built railroad lines in a bid to lure holiday-makers and in 1888, President Grover even visited. The railroads opened the floodgates to visitors from across the US.
Florida’s first theme parks arrived in the 1930s with Cyprus Gardens, but it wasn’t until 1971, when Walt Disney chose central Florida for his dream, that this state was truly revitalized. Around the same time, the 1960’s Space Race centered itself at Cape Canaveral, adding a different economic boost and prestige. Since then, Florida has been primarily about fantastical theme parks, space launches, beach holidays, and fun in the sun.
Beneath the strip malls, old folks’ homes, and tourist-heavy beach towns, there is a rich spectrum of culture at work in Florida. The allure of Disney, Universal, and the other theme parks in Orlando can’t be dismissed because they contribute a true mark of fantasy to Florida’s culture. The beach towns off the tourist radar are another major facet in Florida’s character. They epitomize the hyper-relaxed atmosphere that pervades over most of the state, with the exception of Miami.
But in Miami, another essential cultural element is at work. The strong Latino and Cuban populations are on full display. Even outside of Little Havana, it’s hard not to notice the ethnic diversity in South Florida. The Hispanic element provides much of the excitement in Florida, in sharp contrast to the state’s geriatric constituency. Simply spend a week in Miami and practice your Spanish because it’s just as prevalent as English. From dizzying nights out in South Beach and Little Havana, to the art and fashion on parade in the Design District, Miami is the pulse of Florida.